French baguette – Poolish + Bowl of Water in Oven

Whenever visiting France there is one thing I really really look forward to: visiting a boulangerie, a bakery. The French baguettes are just so good, always fresh (since storing them for even one day will make them go stale) and crispy. I also adore the pain au chocolat, a croissant, but roled in a different shape with chocolate inside, so good.

Unfortunately, a pain au chocolate is still a little too much of a challenge for me (although I did make croissants!). I prefer buy these in a good store. But, I did decide it was time to give a French baguette a real go! Since I didn’t trust any non-French website I decided to googlea recipe in French and found one, in French. Why in French? Because I’ve found there are a lot of people calling their white long bread a French baguette whereas it clearly isn’t!

This French bread certainly was my best try ever at a French baguette. It was really crispy on the outside, soft and light on the inside. I actually think it’s due to two main reasons: the use of a poolish (yes, that word was new to me as well, just continue reading to discover what it is) and placing a bowl of water in the oven. So let’s dive into both, after sharing the recipe of course.

French baguette recipe

The recipe I used comes from Recette Dessert, I didn’t make a lot of changes since it turned out great the way it did!

French baguette - Poolish + Bowl of Water in Oven
 
Author:
Recipe type: Bread
Cuisine: French
Ingredients
Poolish (this is a sort of starter)
  • 170g flour (regular flour)
  • 170g water
  • ½ tsp yeast (I use instant yeast)
Dough
  • The poolish from the previous step
  • 330g flour
  • 180g water
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp yeast
Instructions
  1. Mix the flour, water and yeast for the poolish. It will look pretty wet and sticky which is fine, you don't have to knead it, only mix it.
  2. Leave the poolish to stand for approx. 12 hours at room temperature, I made mine in the morning and used it in the evening, it stood for a total of 10 hours.
  3. Add all ingredients for the dough into a stand mixer (or knead by hand) and leave to mix at a low speed for 15 minutes.
  4. Leave the dough to rest for another 45 minutes. Make sure to cover the bowl with dough with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.
  5. Split the dough into 3 portions and shape them into little baguettes. Cover the baguettes with a towel and some plastic wrap and leave for another 45-60 minutes.
  6. Turn on the oven (fan) to 230C. Place a bowl with hot boiling water at the bottom of your oven.
  7. Once the oven reached its temperature and once the water is (still) around 100C, put the baguettes in for 30 minutes (the baking time will depend on the shape of your breads, long and thin will bake quicker than short and thick).
  8. Enjoy!

Poolish

Never heard of poolish? Neither did I. Apparently poolish is the name for a starter that’s used for all sorts of breads. By leaving some water, flour and yeast to sit on your benchtop the yeast will start growing and digesting nutrients from the flour. Apparently, flavours are formed during this process which will be a the bread a richer taste.

It is also claimed that it improves the extensibility of your dough, that is, how easy you can stretch it. Honestly, I find it hard to compare since the recipe is also different from ones I’ve used before without a poolish.

Nevertheless, I do surely think that using the poolish really help in making the great taste and structure of the bread.

poolish plus dough
Here’s my poolish with the rest of the ingredients. You don’t have to mix the other ingredients first, you can add the poolish straight away. See all the bubbles in the poolish? The yeast has been growing happily.

Bowl of water in the oven for crispyness

The second trick I used was one I discovered when writing and reading about the history of ovens. I discovered that at the time, when big stone ovens were used, the moisture content in an oven was very different.

These ovens used to be very large and in the first stages of baking bread (or pizza dough) a lot of moisture would evaporate from the dough. This moisture couldn’t really go anywhere, so would just stay in the oven.

Nowadays, ovens aren’t designed for that anymore, so if you have a conventional oven you’ll have to increase the moisture content yourself. I do that be taking an oven proof glass bowl and filling this with boiling hot water which I then place in the oven. Since my oven heats up pretty quickly and water tends to take a long time to heat up, I prefer adding water that’s already pretty hot.

Once the water is hot part of it will evaporate and form steam. Why is this important? I’ve found several sources (one of which is this article from serious eats) which mention the same two main reasons:

  1. The high moisture content in the oven will keep the outside of the bread flexible for a longer period of time. This should allow it to expand more extensively than without the steam.
  2. Moisture is good in transferring heat and a high moisture content should increase the temperature transfer at the surface (thus crust) of your bread. Apparently, this should lead to more browning but also a thicker crust.

The reasons make sense to me and my experience with the method has indeed been very positive. Never have I had a bread with such a good crunchy, crispy crust as I had this time!

Good luck and let me know how it went! Also, if you have any other (bread) baking/cooking questions which are related to science, let me know! Who knows you might be featured in a future post.

Further reading

Want to read more about poolish? The Weekend Bakery wrote a nice post about its use.

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